On Thursday, the United States dropped a bomb in Afghanistan, near a place called Achin. The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast blew up a cave complex used by Islamic State fighters -- and, shortly thereafter, the media. The coverage of the MOAB was an incredible mix of hysteria and hardware pornography. “Fox & Friends” even soundtracked the gun-camera video of the explosion.
Nearly 16 years after 9/11, we remain at war in Afghanistan. The U.S. Air Force has already dropped 457 weapons there in 2017. Something about this one, though, made people a little crazy. Maybe it’s the nickname: mother of all bombs. Why so much attention to one bomb, and so little attention to the lingering war?
Yes, the bomb was big. The MOAB explodes with a force equivalent to about 11 tons of TNT. It is the most powerful conventional bomb in the U.S. arsenal, although the Massive Ordnance Penetrator is heavier. Different munitions are better for different missions, but the overall destructive power of the MOAB is similar to other bomber payloads, such as a fully loaded B-52 bomber carrying more than 50 750-pound bombs. The MOAB is, itself, a replacement for an older, only slightly less massive bomb popularly known as the Daisy Cutter, which the United States used to terrible effect in Vietnam, Iraq and, yes, Afghanistan.
The MOAB certainly shocked and awed observers here. Several news organizations reported that the GBU-43 had a yield comparable to the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. That is nonsense: The GBU-43 explodes with a force of about 11 tons of TNT. The atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was about 1,000 times more powerful. Corrections were duly made, but the tone of the coverage did not change.
This was hardly the first bomb that the United States had dropped in Afghanistan. And it is surely not the last. This past June, then-President Barack Obama loosened restrictions on U.S. airstrikes in support of Afghan forces. Not long after, B-52s began striking targets there for the first time in a decade. Yet this had been little remarked in the United States - at least until an Air Force MC-130 released the very first MOAB in a combat situation.
For whatever reason, people here reacted to the MOAB as though it was a nuclear weapon, although it clearly is not, either in how it works or in its destructive power. Part of this reaction probably reflects the moment in which we live. After a long and bitter presidential campaign in which Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button was the dominant metaphor used to discuss his fitness - or lack thereof - for the awesome responsibility of the Oval Office, people are jumpy. The airstrikes in Syria and saber-rattling on the Korean Peninsula have unnerved many, perhaps more so than the facts warrant.
But there is a deeper phenomenon at play - the process by which we decide which weapons are taboo and which are not. Many of our fellow citizens were simply not clear on which side of that very fuzzy line the MOAB falls. And who can blame them? After all, we’ve decided that destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons was terrible, but firebombing Tokyo was not. And that Syria’s Bashar Assad must not murder innocent men, women and children with poison gas, but only with conventional bombs and rockets. These distinctions are arbitrary, but when a new bomb comes along, it’s hard to know how to accommodate it into our existing frameworks.
And yet, the process of constructing norms - however imperfect - is, by and large, how human beings have chosen to deal with the fact that states continue to settle disputes with violence. As our technological capacity to wreak destruction has grown from machine guns to poison gas to nuclear weapons, more than a few people have observed that our species’ tendency to resort to violence may be our undoing. Eliminating war, though, seems unlikely. And so, falling short of that lofty goal, we try to prohibit the worst weapons - those that cause unnecessary or gruesome suffering and, most important, those that do not discriminate among combatants and noncombatants. If our lines are imperfect, we know they are better than no lines at all. If our restrictions are too narrow, we believe that others will come along who will try to broaden them.
But we draw these lines because we know that our capacity to create destructive weapons vastly exceeds the ability of our political and social institutions to manage them. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. meant, I think, when he spoke of living in an era of “guided missiles and unguided men.” Our technological prowess exceeds our wisdom.
Maybe that’s why so many of our fellow citizens focused on the bomb, instead of the bleeding misery of Afghanistan: because we don’t know how to end that war any more than we know how to end all wars. So instead we wait, hopeful that our political leaders will find solutions to the dangers we face, while fearing that before they do, a weapon we cannot control will come along - the one that will get us in the end.
Lewis is a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.